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Tous les matins du monde (1991)
Great cinematography and baroque music trump invented tale of conflict between master teacher and student, in 17th century France
Tous les matins du monde is the story of two musicians, Marin Marais (played by the noted actor, Gérard Depardieu) and his mentor, Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, during the time of King Louis IV in the 17th century. The late director Alain Corneau adapted the novel of the same name, written by Pascal Quignard. Little is known historically of both Marais and Sainte-Colombe, and Quignard's novel is a speculative account of the two mens' relationship.
The film begins with an elderly Marais (now the master player of the viola da gamba, a predecessor of the modern cello) recounting his youth as well as the biography of his mentor, Sainte-Colombe, who became a recluse on his country estate after the death of his wife. Sainte-Colombe did raise his two daughters, Madeline and Toinette, and taught them both how to play the viol, and the trio soon caught the ear of the king by performing local concerts. One of the members of the king's inner circle, Monsieur de Caignet, informs Sainte-Colombe that the king wants him to lead the royal orchestra at the court, but Sainte- Colombe refuses. For refusing the king, Sainte-Colombe and his daughters are banned from performing for the foreseeable future.
Sainte-Colombe, who never got over the death of his wife, withdraws further into his own little world, spending hours in a diminutive hut (set off from his main house), where he further hones his craft on the viol. The central part of the drama begins when a 19 year old Marais (played by Depardieu's son, Guillame), shows up at Saint-Colombe's door, and begs him to take this unpolished son of a shoemaker on, as a pupil. As far as I could tell, Marais plays beautifully for Sainte-Colombe, but Sainte-Colombe, due to his unreasonable quest for perfection, is unimpressed. He perceives Marais as a sell-out, who will do well making music at the royal court, but will never be a bona fide, true "musician."
Both daughters, nonetheless, are quite impressed by the young Marais and urge their father to reconsider taking him on as a pupil. Sainte-Colombe finally agrees to have the young man come back but after a short time he sends him packing. Marais ends up having an affair with Madeline, who teaches all her father's smart moves on the viol. And to top it off, Marais (along with Madeline), hides underneath the hut, in an attempt to appropriate more of the master's style. When Sainte-Colombe finds Marais underneath the hut, that's the last straw, and sends him packing for good.
Marais is depicted as having been seduced by court life and coldly dumps Madeline. She becomes despondent and eventually hangs herself. Sainte-Colombe becomes even more despondent over his daughter's suicide, and it takes him months before he realizes that all that brooding has done him no good. This coincides with Marais' change of heart; he realizes the error of his wayshis seduction by King Louis IV's courtwhich also leads to an his own life-affirming epiphany, and the subsequent decision to call on Sainte-Colombe, leading to a reconciliation between the two 'great' men.
In the end, Saint-Colombe ultimately realizes that the way he treated Marais was beneath him and simply arrogant. For a long while, he was obsessed with his dead wife, who he often saw in visions. He was brought back to reality by the crushing real-life death of his daughter. Similarly, just like in the case of his mentor, the death of someone close, was the catalyst for change. Marais realized that the way in which he treated Madeline, who he dumped for the seductive glare of the royal court, was awful and that he now needed to make amends. Marais could now approach his former mentor with humility and would now find an equally accepting and receptive Sainte-Colombe, ready to recognize his talents, which he was loathe to do, at an earlier juncture in Marais' career.
The film's strongest suit is undoubtedly the rich visuals evoking the period as well as the music, performed by the modern day master of the viol, Jordi Savall. Corneau's screenplay is sometimes slow and wordy and manages to rely on narration a little too often. It's a simplistic tale of redemption, relying on the melodramatic deaths of two female characters, to effect a catharsis in both principals.
Both Depardieus offer up convincing performances but it pains me to think about what happened to the younger Depardieu in real life (injured in a motorcycle accident, he eventually had to have his leg amputated; and later died of pneumonia at around age thirty). There's also the tragedy of director Corneau who died at the young age of 67 from cancer, not to mention the elder Depardieu's more recent troubles with the law.
Had Corneau and Quignard had a few more real-life facts about Sainte-Colombe and Marais to go on, this could have been a slightly more nuanced tale. Instead, we're asked to assent to Sainte-Colombe's label as a 'genius', without any real evidence. The dour narcissist remains fixated on his dead wife for most of the film, and only comes out of his shell when faced with the second tragedy of his daughter's suicide. It's hard to believe that the real-life Marais would have placed his mentor on such a high pedestal. Historically, the quality of his musical output is deemed superior to the so-called master.
Ultimately we must be content with the speculative character portraits proffered here. Tous les matins du monde is an extremely elegant film which features some great baroque music. Nonetheless, the melodramatic, invented tale of a conflict between master teacher and student, is not as believable or moving as the music, the narrative ably showcases.
Trois couleurs: Bleu (1993)
Sumptous visual palate saves exploration of mourning process from total mediocrity
This is the first film in Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski's Trois couleurs trilogy based on the French Revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. The high point is Sławomir Idziak's sumptuous cinematography and when all is said and done, 'Blue' is a fine film to look at. But in terms of story, it's also a slow-moving affair and if you don't have a lot of patience, you might find the narrative an exercise in unfortunate ennui.
Juliette Binoche plays 'Julie' whose famous composer husband and young daughter are killed in a car accident at the beginning of the film. Totally shattered, Julie first attempts suicide but can't go through with it. Instead, she decides to withdraw from life by putting up her home for sale, place her Alzheimer's afflicted mother in a nursing home and renting an apartment in Paris without telling any of her friends and family. She also destroys her husband's unfinished musical score (commissioned to promote European unity), which she may have actually composed herself.
The main question we're left with (as robot-like Julie makes her way through her self-imposed life in exile) is, when will she come out of it? Along the way, however, she's determined to prove that she can go through life with all her emotions deadened, as a sort of impotent protest against the cruel fate bestowed upon her. Hence, when Olivier, a former composer colleague who's in love with her, finally finds out where she's moved to, Julie has sex with him and then cruelly tells him never to see her again. And then there's all those scenes swimming in the poolwe hear the booming sound of the unfinished symphony impinging on Julie's consciousness. This obviously signifies her inability to repress her emotions completely.
Kieślowski argues that in the mourning process there comes a point where demands for kindness in ordinary life must intrude on the mourner's determination to maintain their inflexible stance of anger and denial. Case in point: Julie answering exotic dancer's Lucille's call for help when her father shows up at the strip club. Or Julie deciding not to hold a grudge against Sandrine, her husband's mistress, by allowing her and the new baby, to live in her family's home. While Julie probably is still not overjoyed by Sandrine's actions, this is her way of 'moving on', and also acknowledging that she must help the baby, which belongs not only to Sandrine, but to her late husband as well.
Julie finally breaks out of her shell by getting involved with Olivier. At the denouement, Olivier gives Julie the ultimatum about the unfinished score (a copy turns up preserved)he'll complete it with all its 'roughness' or Julie will take over completely, but admit to current and past authorship. But Julie's decision is ambiguous in terms of who takes creditwhat's important is that she's involved in collaborating and is no longer alarmingly self-absorbed. As the presumed completed symphony plays, we see shots of the various individuals who Julie touched, in spite of her self-defeating but thankful short-term exile. And the housekeeper who earlier cries for Julie because she's unable to mourn, can now rest assured that Julie is finally beginning to cry herself.
Part of the 'Blue' problem is that there is no external conflict going on. The conflict exists solely in Julie's mind. The characters that impinge upon her are not developed in great detailthey exist as a catalyst for Julie's recovery. There's also the natural tendency to feel sympathy for a character that has experienced an unfathomable tragedy. Nonetheless, Julie's recovery is rather predictable and I'm not convinced that explorations of the mourning process in itself, should really be the subject of a full-length feature film. On the other hand, if you're a patient film goer, the film's visual palate, is worth the price of admission.
Wonder Boys (2000)
Trivial, campy tale of mixed up professor who takes unpleasant student under his wing
There were great expectations for 'Wonder Boys'. You can even hear Michael Douglas say on the DVD extras that this was an opportunity to play a more substantial part, much different from what he terms "prince of darkness" roles he had recently been known for. Nonetheless, here was a film that was released a SECOND time, after it initially bombed at the box office (the second release, by the way, fared no better).
Perhaps the biggest reason for 'Wonder Boys' failure, was the source material: the novel of the same name, written by the young wunderkind, Michael Chabon. Michiko Kakutani perhaps said it best, describing the novel in her 1995 NY Times review, as "silly and verging on camp." Although I disagree with her assessment that the film had a "split personality," with the story being also "touching and melancholy."
Screenwriter Steve Kloves' faithfully adapts Chabon's story and retains the same sorry schematics: in a nutshell, the protagonist, Professor Grady Tripp, has no significant antagonist to play off of. This might work better in a novel, where the characters' internal arc is highlighted, but in a full-length feature film, it's deadly. Tripp is basically the pot-smoking loser who can't replicate his earlier literary success and also can't decide whether he wants to commit to the University Chancellor, Sara Gaskell, now pregnant with his child. Gaskell is married to Tripp's boss, Walter, chairman of the English Department.
Peripheral characters seem to drift in and out of view during the film with little or no identifiable purpose including a young Katie Holmes as Hannah Green, both Tripp's student and boarder as well as Tripp's literary agent, Terry Crabtree (played by a younger Robert Downey Jr.), whose career is also falling apart (mainly due to Tripp's inability to come up with a new novel).
The bulk of 'Wonder Boys' concerns Tripp's relationship with the dissolute James Leer (a very, very young Tobey Maguire), one of Tripp's students who aspires to be a writer. A singular event ruins the entire movie when Leer shoots Walter's dog and the bumbling Tripp places the carcass in the trunk of his car for most of the rest of the film. Somehow, Chabon and Kloves believes that the shooting of the poor pooch is supposed to be funny. My theory is that talk about this most unpleasant event got around and accounted for the very poor response at the box office. Clue for future film scenarists: don't allow one of your main characters to kill a dog, if you want people to like your movie!!!
The rest of the machinations in the film are only briefly worth mentioning. Suffice it to say that after Leer shoots the Gaskell's pet, he also makes off with the Chairman's precious Marilyn Monroe memorabilia. At a certain point, Terry ends up in bed with James and then Tripp's car turns out to be stolen and is repossessed by its rightful owner (a crazy black dude who resembles a cross between James Brown and Little Richard).
The repulsive Leer is saved after Tripp makes a deal with Walter, arranging for Terry to publish his book, described as a "critical exploration of the union of Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe and its function in American mythopoetics", tentatively titled The Last American Marriage." The dig at academia could have been developed quite a bit more, but the scenarists here fail to go in that direction. And as for Tripp, the loss of his manuscript signals the shattering of all of his illusions.
Tripp's ultimate fate is indicative of Chabon's (and Kloves') failure to do anything creative with their protagonist. Tripp, the perennial procrastinator, finally decides to make the obvious commitment (which we can see a mile away from the very beginning), where he decides to shack up with Sara and play the responsible role of the good father (a significantly SENTIMENTAL ending for a film billed as some sort of black comedy).
Granted, Michael Douglas does the best he can in a role where his character simply doesn't develop. At least (as he says), this time he's not playing the "prince of darkness." The rest of the cast also do the best they can with the limited material but the chief highlight here is merely seeing how notable actors (Downey, Maguire, Holmes and McDormand) looked as their pre-9/11 selves.
'Wonder Boys' truly has little to say about human nature since its quirky characters are distantly related to how real people think and feel. Most disappointing is the film's campy humor, which sometimes veers into excessively unpleasant terrain (yes, I'll bring up the dead dog one more time!). Remember that many films with an 'indie' appellation, do not necessarily come close to 'art', despite assorted critics' claims to the contrary.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
Sometimes on the 'edge of your seat entertaining', but the verisimilitude of its plot is lacking
Although 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit' is based on the character created by the late famed mystery writer, Tom Clancy, the screenplay here was written by Adam Cozad and David Koepp. It stars Chris Pine, who is much more notable as James T. Kirk in the new Star Trek reboot. Here, Pine has the requisite good looks for Jack Ryan but most of what he does is 'by the numbers'.
It takes a while before the story (or should I say action?), picks up. Initially, we're treated to Ryan's back storyhow he first was attending the London School of Economics when 9/11 occurred and his subsequent elevation to derring-do as a second lieutenant during the Afghanistan conflict. He ends up with a spinal injury when his helicopter is shot down but manages to save two of his comrades in arms. Ryan must recuperate from his injuries and is nursed back to health by his future wife, Cathy Muller, a medical student. Finally, Kevin Costner arrives on the scene as Thomas Harper, who recruits him for a 'numbers cruncher' job with the CIA.
Things continue to plod along as Ryan works as an undercover compliance officer on Wall Street until he discovers that trillions of funds belonging to Russian organizations, most controlled by a shadowy Russian tycoon, Viktor Cherevin (Branagh), are now nowhere to be found in the bank's computer database. It's off to Russia where the first good scene begins, as Ryan is almost taken out by one of Cherevin's bodyguards who poses as his driver who picks him up at the airport. When Ryan ends up drowning the fake driver in the bathtub at the hotel, that's one action scene to remember.
The rest of 'Shadow Recruit' involves a great deal of suspension of disbelief, if you want to enjoy what you're watching. Right away it seems a little too easy the way in which the CIA cleans up the mess at the hotel. But hey, this is the movies, isn't it? I'm pretty ignorant when it comes to Wall Street machinations, so the plot Cherevin has devised to ruin the US economy, also seems quite far-fetched (sell all your shares on the market, coupled with a terrorist event, and that should easily spell the next Great Depression for the United States). I also wish that the film's scenarists explained in a little more detail what was on those computer files that Ryan so expertly downloaded in the nick of time. I do know the way in which Ryan is able to avoid Cherevin's security to break into the office next door, seemed pretty unbelievable.
Nonetheless, things are flying at a pretty brisk pace after Ryan manages to escape from Cherevin's offices. The car chase, though pretty standard, still keeps one engaged along with Keira Knightley, stalling for time with Cherevin at dinner, and later a kidnap victim, about to have an exploding light bulb stuffed down her throat by an over the top Branagh, as the brutal Russian oligarch (Knightley's part picks up as she has little to do at the beginning of the film, where she ends up popping up in Russia as a mere jealous spouse).
Then there's the climax of the film featuring Cherevin's son, who was planted in the US years ago and is now a trained assassin. The brutal way in which he dispatches various innocents, he encounters, has the ring of verisimilitude. The way in which his identity is uncovered, however, by a series of hunches on the part of the principals involving social media (as they try to figure out the plot inside a jet headed back to the US), plays more like an advertisement for Ancestry.com, than a more detailed peak at how covert CIA analysts really work.
No need to give away the details of 'Shadow Recruit' ending, but suffice it to say that the good guys of course win in the end. I don't wish to be too hard on 'Jack Ryan' as it doesn't always make a lot of sense, but once Ryan arrives in Russia, it does seem to pick up steam and manages to entertain to a certain extent. The best way to enjoy 'Jack Ryan' is with a box of popcornextended viewings don't seem really necessary, given the plot contrivances. In the end 'Ryan' entertains but it's useless trying to analyze everything in detailone must leave that to a real-life CIA operative, analyzing a real-life case in point.
Breathe In (2013)
Improvised dialogue and ordinary plot sink this indie tale of suburban marital infidelity
Keith Reynolds was a rock musician when he was younger but now aspires to be first cellist in a local symphony orchestra in suburban Westchester. That way, he can quit his regular job as a music teacher at the local high school. He's a grim-faced sort of guy who never laughs (nor do any of the other characters in 'Breathe In', a lugubrious melodrama starring Guy Pearce as a wayward musician). He's married to his non-descript wife, Megan and they have a daughter, Lauren, who attends the same high school Keith teaches in.
The Reynolds decide to sponsor a British exchange student, Sophie, for a semester, and right off the bat you can guess where the plot is going. Sophie, only 18 years old, is the prescribed home wrecker. The only question that remains is what kind of home wrecker is she? Perhaps a demon seed who ends up murdering a principal or two in the household? Not quite. We finally find out that Sophie is a near genius pianist who demonstrates her extreme competence, when Keith insists that she introduce herself by playing a classical piece before his high school class.
After that it's a long drag as Keith and Sophie grow closer to each other. Eventually, they find themselves cuddling by a lake in a local park and there's finally one rather chaste kiss. Much to daughter Lauren's chagrin, she spies her errant father canoodling with the sultry exchange student. Since Lauren was also rejected by her first time sex flame, the combination of the two bad actors (daddy and ex-boyfriend) is too much for her to handle. She gets behind the wheel of her car after swigging some alcohol, and gets into a possibly fatal accident as she veers off the road into the woods, to avoid an oncoming truck.
Of course this dark moment at the end of Act 2, occurs precisely around the same time Keith lands the job as principal cellist in the orchestra and is playing for the first time in the big seat. He's also decided to run off with the young Sophie but just as he meets her, he learns of Lauren's accident.
After Megan trashes the house after realizing that Keith has run off, she meets him at the hospital, where she gives him a decidedly negative reception. Fortunately, director Drake Doremus doesn't go as far as to kill off the daughter, and make this a real heavy-handed tragedy. Instead, poor Sophie gets a double dose of bad stares from both Keith and Megan when they return home and her days in America have decisively come to an end.
David Lee Dallas of Slant Magazine perhaps puts it best in his review: "Breathe In masquerades as a sensitive character study, seemingly high-brow because it's so low-key, but underneath that veneer is an inert, thinly plotted melodrama premised on trite characterizations that would be offensive if they weren't so absurd."
Part of Breath In's problem is that most of the dialogue feels like it's improvised. Indeed, director Doremus worked from a 60 page outline and not a full-blown script. After numerous takes, Doremus has been quoted as saying that the actors simply "knew what to say." Some may find that inventive, but I do not.
As Breathe In plods along, one finds oneself mildly interested in how the story resolves itself. But once all is said and done, this earnest little tale of infidelity proves to be ordinary as they come.
Magic in the Moonlight (2014)
Master of the derivative mise en scène channels 'My Fair Lady', as Henry Higgins meets Harry Houdini
Just as Shakespeare looked to the classics of his time for inspiration, so has Woody Allen in his quest to meet his yearly quota of either flippant rom-coms hearkening back to yesteryear or more dramatic fare. Last year Allen channeled 'Street Named Desire' in crafting his moderately successful 'Blue Jasmine'. Now, with 'Magic in the Moonlight', it's 'My Fair Lady' (based on George Bernard Shaw's 'Pygmalion').
In terms of plot, Allen's 'Henry Higgins' is 'Stanley', a British illusionist who performs as a stereotyped 'Oriental', Wei Li Soo. While Higgins was a brilliant and witty phonetician, Stanley's background is modeled more on Houidini. Stanley shares Houdini's contempt for spiritualists and he takes his avocation of traveling around Europe, exposing fake mediums, quite seriously.
In 'My Fair Lady', it's Colonel Pickering, a linguist, who challenges Higgins to a bet that he can transform an ordinary Cockney flower girl into a high society lady in six months. Here, the Colonel Pickering character is Howard Burkan, a fellow illusionist, who asks Stanley if he can come to the south of France and expose Sophie, a young waif of a medium, praying on an American family, the Catledges. It's Brice (who mimics the Freddie Eynsford-Hill role in 'My Fair Lady', the besotted young man in love with Eliza Doolittle) who has fallen for the magnetic Sophie. Unlike Eynsford-Hill who gets to sing the magnificent, 'On the Street Where You Live', Brice manages to sing a few hits from the 20s, completely out of key on the ukulele. Also in the mix is Stanley's precious Aunt Vanessa, whose words of wisdom about relationships, echo the advice that Higgins receives from his mother as his relationship with Eliza begins to develop into something serious.
While Higgins ends up teaching Eliza to speak proper English, it's his rival, Zolton Karpathy, the Hungarian phonetician, who seeks to expose his work as a fraud. Similarly, Stanley does all he can to expose Sophie as a fraud. Unfortunately, the two relationships are not equivalent. The relationship between Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, is a constant, charming 'push and pull'. On the other hand, there's virtually no chemistry between Stanley and Sophie, not only because Stanley is an unlikeable, pontificating curmudgeon, but (spoilers ahead) once Sophie is exposed as a fraud, she becomes unlikeable too and there's no reason why Stanley should be attracted to her.
For a while, 'Magic in Moonlight' does keep one's interest as Stanley's skepticism is swept away through Sophie's deception. It's nowhere close to the brilliance of Shaw's distillation of the Higgins-Doolittle romance, but Allen manages to throw in a clever twist, when it's revealed that Burkan has been feeding Sophie all the private information about Stanley, which initially causes him to give up his on his anti-spiritualism crusade.
The 'Magic' collapses in Act 3, but before I get to that, just a word about Woody Allen's holier-than-thou attitude. Allen can't hide his contempt for what he regards as anything that smacks of anti- rationalism. Hence, Stanley, the great debunker, ultimately exposes Sophie, as a complete fakir. But are they all fakes that have to resort to parlor tricks to get by? Not all psychics (such as John Edwards) employ the cheap parlor tricks (the use of the cane knocks, to connote yes or no) that ultimately exposed Sophie here as a fraud. But in Allen's world, they're all to be condemned and have no value. The same goes for those of religious faith. Stanley falls into prayer after Aunt Vanessa's car accident, but suddenly 'catches' himself and changes his mind about faith and prayer. The sudden reversal in Stanley's behavior is ludicrous and is awkwardly inserted there by Allen, to overemphasize his constant mantra: down with religion.
'Magic' really should have ended with Sophie being exposed but Allen must bring his My Fair Universe parallel universe, to its unenviable conclusion. Sure enough, after Sophie rejects Stanley and runs off with Brice, Stanley falls deeper and deeper into his narcissistic reverie. But wouldn't you know it, and for no rational reason at all, Sophie returns to Stanley. In 'My Fair Lady' there was a relationship there, and that's why Eliza returned. But after Stanley acted as meanly as he did, Sophie still comes back to him. Why? Simply because Woody is following the 'My Fair Lady' mise en scène. Note the way Stanley asks if it's Sophie at the door just as Higgins does, when Eliza returns. In 'My Fair Lady' it's a moment of great emotion; in 'Magic', it's just another moment of chicanery, introduced by the master of derivative dramaturgy, Monsieur Woody Allen.
Land Ho! (2014)
Charming Icelandic mid-life crisis road movie, lacks tension in plot and discernible character arcs
Land Ho! is the end product of a collaboration between indie co-directors Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz. It's a road movie about two ex-brothers-in-law who travel to Iceland on vacation in order to reinvigorate their lives after retirement. Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson), a Kentucky surgeon, re-connects with Colin (Paul Eenhoorn), who long ago played French horn in an orchestra but later became a bank manager as well as internet entrepreneur with his ex-wife.
The back story as to their mild estrangement is not important, but one gets the impression that it's Mitch (who pays for the trip) is attempting to cheer Colin up, following his divorce from his second wife. As it turns out, however, we later discover that Mitch has ulterior motivesthat in fact, he too needs cheering up, as he's also having trouble dealing with retirement.
Of the two characters, Mitch is the aggressive one, with Colin playing the passive 'straight man'. Some viewers may find Mitch's personality a bit grating as his comments are often fraught with crude sexual allusions (sometimes directly made toward women). When Colin mentions that he'd like to see an Icelandic lighthouse, Mitch remarks that lighthouses remind him of an erect 'cock' without the 'balls'. Colin, on the other hand, comes off as shy and perhaps slightly depressed. Nonetheless there's good chemistry between the two and Mitch, despite the intermittent vulgarity, has a kind side as well.
After Mitch and Colin arrive in Iceland, they drive around in a rented Humvee and see the sights. Occasionally, outside characters intrude breaking up the monotony of their often long-winded but occasionally charming conversations (Mitch sticks to his emphasis on sex; for Colin it's more about the movies he likes). Early on, the two meet up with Mitch's cousin (once removed) and her friend, two Ph.D. students, who just happen to be traveling to Reykjavík , following a stopover in Greenland. The meeting culminates in Mitch's cousin ending up passing out after drinking too much at a local disco.
There isn't much more to tell about 'Land ho!' The high point of any conflict between the principals occurs after Mitch convinces Colin to join him taking a midnight stroll on the barren tundra without flashlights, with Colin ending up expressing his frustration with Mitch, who he regards as pushy and self-absorbed. There is very little developed here in terms of a plot that has any tension or characters with any developed or discernible arcs.
While both Mitch and Colin are in Iceland to get their "groove back," aside from that, the stakes aren't high enough to suggest anything more than a pleasant, road movie, where nothing leads to any kind of memorable climax. Perhaps the real star of 'Land Ho!' is the beautiful, Icelandic countryside, filmed in high relief, on two expensive digital Red One cameras!
Solitary Man (2009)
Despite strong performances, a drab morality play where a loser gets his predictable comeuppance
With a cast including Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon, Jesse Eisenberg and Danny DeVito, one wonders why a film such as 'Solitary Man' fails to hit the mark. It all comes down to the concept promulgated by co-directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien. Simply put, films about losers (or sad sacks as I like to call them), more often than not, don't work! Why is it that Majorie Baumgartner, writing in the Austin Chronicle, concludes that, "The actors are all charged up, too; there's just nowhere in this script for them to go?" That's because everything about Ben Kalmen (Douglas' shark who has seen better days) is pre-ordained. From the outset, the former car dealership honcho is a self-sabotaging boor who after losing all his millions, attempts to manipulate women (including his own daughter) so he can take their money to bankroll new schemes of pure self-entitlement.
Sure there are a few real-life stories of sharks such as Kalmen who fall from grace; but those aren't the interesting ones. Far more interesting is the bad guy who succeedsA Tony Soprano who is both maniacal and charming at the same time. There will always be interesting, conflicting characters who oppose a Tony Sopranoand there's always the hope that someone will stop him (but sometimes we want Tony to get the better of his opponentseven though we know deep down, he's not an honorable or ethical human being). But in the case of a Ben Kalmen, the perennial has-been loser, it's hard to root for someone who is so unpleasant.
I have no doubt that the films' scenarists' strategy is to hold up Kalmen's story as a cautionary tale. Unlike Michael Douglas' iconic, charming rogue 'Gordon Gekko', whose 'Greed is good' philosophy is the underpinning of the insightful and entertaining 1987 film 'Wall Street', what we're supposed to get from the 'Solitary Man' is that 'greed is bad'.
Kalmen simplistically is driven by greed and that's why he uses women. Ultimately, the filmmakers try to make a case for Kalmen that he's charming but he also must be punished. The 'charming' moments only involve male-bonding: his affection for his son, the dating advice he gives to impressionable student, Crestin (Jesse Eisenberg), as well as the mutual affection between Kalmen and long-lost friend Jimmy Marino (but such bonding only goes so far; Kalmen sabotages his relationship with Jimmy, failing to acknowledge his old friend's true spirit of generosity).
As to his relationships with women, it's one monstrous fling after another. Kalmen beds the 17 year old daughter of his girlfriend, while he accompanies her on a trip to look at a college campus. When the girlfriend's daughter reveals that Kalmen went to bed with her, the mother reverses her decision to pull strings, to aid Kalmen, so he can get back into the auto dealership business. Then Kalmen is cut off by his own daughter, after she learns he had an affair with the mother of one of her young son's friends. Soon afterward, Kalmen hits on Crestin's girlfriend while he's drunk at a party. Crestin, generous in spirit, excuses Kalmen, accepting the excuse that he was intoxicated. The final coup de grace is when Kalmen is beaten up by an ex-police officer, hired by his former girlfriend, who doesn't want him to be anywhere in the vicinity of her daughter, the one who Kalmen slept with.
At the beginning of the film we learn that Kalmen has a heart condition but never follows up with the doctors. His explanation to his ex-wife as to why he chose not to go for the follow-up check-ups is perhaps the only real brilliant moment in the film (in essence, Kalmen concludes the check-ups are more beneficial to the doctors than to the patients, since his condition is more a lifestyle issue than something the doctors can really successfully treat). Nonetheless, the alarming diagnosis and Kalmen's decision to ignore it, fails to provide a cogent explanation for his continuing bad behavior.
In the end, the cautionary tale of a sad sack loser, driven by greed and a desperate obsession to manipulate women, doesn't quite ring true. There's something a little too pathetic about a Ben Kalmen and the filmmakers attempt to humanize him, falls flat. Better to focus on a character with an ego, who gets away with his bad behavior, instead of offering up a drab morality play, where the loser gets his predictable comeuppance.
Du rififi chez les hommes (1955)
Blacklisted American director serves up distinctive noir on French soil
The director of 'Rififi', Jules Dassin, was down on his luck at the time he was asked to get involved with this gritty film noir. Dassin was a successful American director of film noirs up until the end of the 1940s when he was suddenly blacklisted during the days of the Senator Joe McCarthy witch hunts and barred from working in the United States. Speaking during a 2000 interview featured as part of the Criterion Collection's DVD extras, Dassin remarked that he was paid very little to direct 'Rififi' as the cast and crew also worked under an extremely low budget.
'Rififi' is a very atmospheric film noir, shot intentionally under low light conditions. The plot revolves around a gang of jewel thieves led by Tony "le Stéphanois" (played by Jean Servais, a successful French actor in the 30s, whose career was in in decline at the time, due to alcoholism). Tony, just out of prison on a five year bid for a prior jewel heist, is approached by former pal, Jo, who proposes that they accept mutual friend Mario's plan to steal some jewels from a window display case of a prominent Parisian jewelry store.
The plan is initially rejected by Tony who is preoccupied with his former girlfriend, Mado, who has taken up with a tough guy nightclub owner, Pierre Grutter. In the first of a number of scenes, craftily infused with a palpable, violent edge, Tony beats Mado up for going with this other guy.
With Mado now out of his life, Tony decides to accept Mario's plan but instead of a simply 'smash-and-grab' of the jeweler's store window, he proposes knocking off a safe in the apartment above the jewelry store. Mario's friend, the Italian-speaking Cesar (played by director Dassin himself) is brought in to complete the team. The gang goes through a rehearsal before committing the crime itself. This mainly involves de-arming the sophisticated alarm system. I'm not sure if we needed all the pre-heist rehearsals, particularly because much of it is repeated during the actual heist itself (I'm thinking particularly of the spraying of the fire retardant foam into the alarm box, which appears to be rather redundant and anti-climactic).
Nonetheless the bulk of the heist scene is particularly noteworthy due to its having been shot without any dialogue. Also quite remarkable is the way in which an umbrella is utilized to prevent the alarm from going off, during the burglary. To my surprise, this was actually based on a crime involving a travel agency break-in, dating back to 1899!
After the heist is committed, the plot takes a few other clever twists and turns. The gang is undone by the simple greed of Cesar, who pilfers a small diamond ring for his girlfriend. Grutter and company get wind of this, and end up murdering Mario and his girlfriend (another shocking scene of violence in the film), in an attempt to extort information from Jo, as to the whereabouts of the very expensive jewels, taken from the jewel company's safe. I wonder why, however, Grutter's gang failed to ransack Mario's apartment, before giving up on trying to find the jewels.
After Tony finds a tied-up Cesar (captured by Grutter), he reluctantly murders him in revenge for violating the 'code of silence' between thieves. It's said that this represented Dassin's feelings toward colleagues who betrayed other colleagues during the blacklist era.
The plot races toward its inevitable conclusion after Grutter kidnaps Jo's son and holds him as ransom for the jewels. Tony tells Jo to sit tight while he tracks down the kid. But Jo can't wait and meets Grutter with the cash they got from a fence for the jewels. Inevitably Grutter kills Jo and is about to make off with the jewels when Tony shows up (somehow Mado had heard that Grutter had swiped Jo's son and knew where he was). With information provided by Mado, Tony indeed tracks Grutter down and after being seriously wounded, shoots and kills Grutter (why Grutter doesn't make sure Tony is dead, before attempting to make his get away), seems a bit far-fetched.
Despite his crimes, Tony performs the great sacrifice by driving Jo's son all the way back home, before he expires, with a suitcase stuffed with millions, in the backseat.
'Rififi' has all the ingredients of an engaging, taut, film noir. Particularly notable is the great on-location cinematography, sure-fire editing, very believable performances by some lesser-known actors as well as director Dassin's determination not to tone down the violent scenes in order to mollify a few prurient filmgoers. 'Rififi' suffers from a few flat notes including the long-winded 'heist rehearsal' as well as a number of (aformentioned) questionable plot contrivances, that don't always add up.
Overall, 'Rififi' is a pretty, solid noir. Jules Dassin was said to have regretted only the use of the song that bore the film's title. Dassin didn't want to use any music at all but was somehow talked into using the out of place song 'Rififi'. The title translates as 'rough and tumble'a rather trite allusion to the overall atmosphere the film engenders.
You won't laugh out loud but Danish director gets credit for breaking new ground in the realm of black comedy
The noted Danish director, Thomas Vinterberg, asks the question, 'is there nothing sacred?', and decidedly answers in the negative. Some may call 'The Celebration' a black comedy, which according to Wikipedia, fits the definition: "In black humor, topics and events that are usually regarded as taboo are treated in an unusually humorous or satirical manner while retaining their seriousness." But the film also falls under the broader category of farce: "a farce is a comedy that aims at entertaining the audience through situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant, and thus improbable Farce is also characterized by physical humor, the use of deliberate absurdity or nonsense, and broadly stylized performances Furthermore, a farce is also often set in one particular location, where all events occur."
If one accepts Eric Bentley's definition of farce where one is permitted the outrage without the consequences, then Vinterberg has broken the societal taboos of pedophilia by asking us (in effect) to consider that the consequences of such a transgression might not be as bad as one thinks. Indeed, when Christian spills the beans at his father's big birthday bash that he was molested by his father as a child, the outrage is certainly there for all to see-but the consequences are hardly what the viewer is expecting.
'The Celebration' reminds me of a much darker version of 'Seinfeld'. The four 'Seinfeld' buddies are deeply flawed human beings, but once they come across a much darker force (The 'Soup Nazi' as one of countless examples), they must prepare themselves to do 'battle'. The end result is that our 'heroes' may end up a bit 'bloodied', but their far more neurotic counterpart, must inevitably receive his/her comeuppance.
Hence, Helge's children, Christian, Michael and Helene, are cast as the protagonists, who inevitably must take their 'evil' father down. But along the way, they too, with their serious flaws, are exposed as pyrrhic victors.
Perhaps the most flawed of the three children is Michael. Immediately we see what a hothead he is when he kicks his wife and children out of the car, to give his brother a ride, driving up to the family-run hotel where the celebration will take place. Later, he flips out completely, berating his wife for forgetting to pack his favorite shoes, that he was planning to wear at the party. If there's one wrong note in the film, it's Vinterberg's decision to cast Michael as an out and out racist, after he sings a racist song, disparaging Helene's African-American boyhood. The whole idea here is to highlight the characters' limitations, not make them unsympathetic!
Vinterberg also hints that Helene has not lived up to her expectations. When she finds a suicide note belonging to Christian's twin sister, Lisa, who killed herself a couple of months before, she ineffectually hides it, afraid to reveal its contents to anyone. Helene's mother, Else, expresses her disappointment in her surviving daughter by alluding to her failed career choice as a singer and her flirtation with socialism. Else's racism is much more subtle when she claims Helene chose 'anthropology' over 'law' (a dig at Helene's black boyfriend).
And finally there's Christian, who Helge reveals during one of their 'one-on-one's', has a history of psychiatric problems and failures of relationships with women. While a victim of sexual abuse as a child, Christian can only ineffectually lash out at his parents in front of friends and family members. Even after his initial claim of abuse, he comes back for 'more', castigating his father again and then his mother, claiming she was a witness to Helge's pedophilia and did and said nothing. The whining Christian ends up being tied to a tree by Michael, as the younger son believes his mother's story that Christian is a teller of 'tall tales'.
Soon, however, the far more disturbed Helge gets his comeuppance. After the toastmaster reads Linda's suicide note (given to him by Helene at Christian's behest), the deceased daughter implies she was also molested by Helge (as part of a dream, she says). Helge finally owns up to his behavior, by outrageously stating that was all Christian "was good for." But instead of anyone calling the police, the consequences are minimal for the family patriarch. That evening Michael administers a non-lethal beating; in the morning he beats a hasty exit as Michael asks him to leave the breakfast areawith the further proviso that he will be not be seeing his grandchildren ever again.
As for Else, she declines to join her husband 'in exile'. Some internet posters have stated that she too deserved Helge's fate. But consider this: at the time the abuse occurred, what could she really have done? If she had went to the police, would anyone have believed her? Or if she tried to leave with the kids, what kind of financial support would she have had and wouldn't have Helge done everything in his power, to prevent her from taking the kids?
You may have noticed, of course, the low quality of the film's production. That's of course due to Vinterberg's allegiance to the Dogme 95 Collective school of filmmaking, which Vinterberg was one of the founding members. We all remember what this silly avant-garde movement was all about: no props, no music, a hand-held camera, filmed on location, director getting no credit, etc. In short, Dogme 95 was just another word for 'low-budget' and a well-meaning attempt by independent filmmakers to achieve parity with the big-budget studios.
Vinterberg's real achievement here is extending the genre of black comedy into a new realm. Taboos are refreshingly swept aside with a 'happy ending' (the antagonist is dealt with by his family not the police; facing ostracism instead of a criminal sentence). 'The Celebration' is not much of a 'laugh-out loud' spectacle but still manages to be fairly original.